Crooked House – Agatha Christie (1949)

CrookedHouseIf my choice for my very first Christie book (Death on the Nile) was predictable, my follow up read is probably equally so.  I’m starting out with a bang after all, dabbling in some of the better regarded titles in Christie’s library, and checking off some of the books identified in the Five Agatha Christie Books to Read Before They’re Spoiled For You list assembled by Brad over at Ah Sweet Mystery.  Crooked House straddles the categories neatly, and deservedly so.

My experience with Crooked House is incredibly similar to my experience with Death on the Nile.  Although we’re dealing with entirely different stories taking place in completely different settings, both books swept me right in and maintained my interest throughout, despite the lack of any “impossible” hook that I typically seek out.  And, in both cases, I pretty much saw the solution the entire time, and yet somehow managed to remain enchanted.

I’ve got to shake my head at my luck with solving Christie’s mysteries so far.  I don’t want to figure them out!  I want to be tugged along by false clues only to have my world turned inside out by a cleanly revealed misdirection that causes my mind to instantly reconsider the past 200 pages that I’ve read.  Oh, and Crooked House would have been a whopper!  Talk about a killer twist – too bad I didn’t get to experience it in full.

At a high level, a plot summary of Crooked House doesn’t sound exceptionally appealing to me.  The poisoning of an aged tycoon – most likely by one of the many quirky family members that inhabit his sprawling estate.  Who done it?  Who cares?  It seems as if 100 books may have been written along this very same plot line, and I’m sure that’s a low estimate.

Yet with Crooked House, Christie somehow immediately caught my interest.  I’m new enough to the author that I can’t quite describe how, but everything just works.  The mystery is engaging, the story comfortable, the characters intriguing.  Throw any of these dimensions off, and perhaps we’d have a mediocre read.  But they’re not off – they’re perfectly executed.

We encounter the murder early on – a poisoning by eye medicine swapped in place of an insulin shot.  Anyone in the house had access to the medicine and enough spare insulin vials were on hand that the deed could have been carried out weeks in advance.  Suffice to say, we definitely aren’t in impossible crime territory.

The story unfolds through the eyes of Charles Hayward, who plays the role of the somewhat standard “fly on the wall” narrator.  Rather than being given the opportunity to randomly tag along on the police investigation, as is common enough in GAD, Hayward has a respectable excuse to be involved.  His fiancé is the granddaughter of the victim, which provides him a purpose to be at the mansion and talk with the many family members.  His father is a commissioner at Scotland Yard, which gives him a justification for attempting to dig into the case.

And dig he does.  Although the plot from this point forward could be somewhat summarized as a series of interviews with the possible suspects, the interactions between Hayward and the rest of the cast is organic enough that I barely noticed that I was walking the standard path of a Golden Age mystery.  We have a few obvious suspects, which are tempting to dismiss, and then a varied cast of family members who all have motives bubbling beneath the surface.

Of course, as mentioned above, I immediately latched onto the actual culprit.  I’ll walk a narrow wire to avoid spoilers, so if you haven’t read Crooked House, perhaps now is the time to bail (and if you have read it, please be discreet in any comments that you post).

I’d naturally like to think that I’m super clever for seeing through the mystery, but I suspect it’s more that I’ve seen this before.  At the time that Crooked House was published, I’m willing to bet that the twist caused many a reader to gasp in shock.  Since then, it’s been repeated time and again, especially in low budget horror movies.  I don’t know enough to say that anyone was copying Christie, but I can imagine that Crooked House is well regarded enough to have provided inspiration.

I have to think that the twist plays off the fact that a reader wouldn’t consider a certain… possibility.  I say this because having myself actually considered the possibility, the entire deception played out in full view for the rest of the book.  The revelations that come spinning at Hayward in the final pages weren’t revelations at all – they were beacons that pointed at the culprit as the earlier chapters unfolded.

Well, that’s my theory at least, and I can only base it off my experience.  I’m no master sleuth after all.  I could write a five-part blog post listing every time I’ve had the wool pulled over my eyes, but it would pretty much be a list of each mystery I’ve read up to now.  And I like it that way – to be fooled.  We don’t look forward to the end of a GAD book to be proven right in our theories.  We look forward to it in anticipation of being proved wrong in a way that we never saw coming.

Well, I’m 2-0 so far solving Christie, but I don’t mind; I’m 2-0 for enjoying her.  I don’t say that in a “this is an established classic that I must appreciate” sort of way.  I’m saying it because both Death on the Nile and Crooked House were flat out fun reads.

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21 thoughts on “Crooked House – Agatha Christie (1949)”

  1. I’m starting to get a bit of a complex here! Of course, I was a kid when I read these, and they surprised me at the time. I’m wondering if I should steer you away from the spoiler-ific titles into those that are not worthy so much for their surprise but for an all-around goodness. But then I worry that, without the surprise, you might find these titles lacking. Not sure what to do here!!!

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    1. Boy, I’m just going to start strutting around here with my chest puffed out…

      I think you and JJ actually fell into the same boat as me with The Emperor’s Snuff Box. What I consider to be one of Carr’s most shocking twists was apparently as plain as day for the two of you. And, I feel sorry that you didn’t get to experience the same disbelief that I had (along with the quick scramble to reread the relevant passage extra carefully…).

      Anyway, no complaints on my part about the Christies that I’ve read so far. I just picked up a big stack of them and will continue mixing them into my reading on a regular basis.

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      1. Glad to hear you’re going to continue reading Christie, even though you guessed the solution to two of her top books in her oeuvre. But I know that you’ll come across one that will leave you surprised and not able to guess correctly. . . . I hope! But whether they are guessed at or not, her books provide more treats and treasures than merely the puzzle, though she is greatly renown for that. Anyways, what are some of the Christie’s that you recently bought?

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      2. Ah, well, a bit of background: I had assumed that I didn’t need to buy any Christie because my mother said she had them all – a fact that I accepted at face value. Imagine my horror two weeks ago when I stopped by to swap out some titles and realized that she was missing pretty much every top recommended book.

        A business trip to North Carolina took me through the Raleigh airport which has an excellent used bookstore that specializes in mysteries (I’ve personally never seen a used bookstore in an airport). I took the opportunity to snag a few choice titles:
        -The Hollow
        -Murder in Mesopotamia
        -Death Comes at the End
        -Towards Zero
        -Ms McGinty’s Dead

        I also grabbed a copy of Mr Parker Pyne, Detective because I couldn’t resist the Dell copy at that price.

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  2. This was something like the 50th Christie novel I read, and I have to say that did not see the ending coming; the preceding book was, to my mind, rather light on for clues, but I’ll bow to your more recent reading — I now begin to wonder how the story was strung out as much as it was, in fact, since I remember only a few very key details.

    Glad you’re enjoying this opening foray into Christie an her work. I’d say that to my tastes you haven’t even touched the top drawer, yet, too — these are both very high second tier books IMHO, but I know I’ll a lot of flak for saying that in public… 🙂

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    1. I don’t know that I’ve seen what your top drawer is. You have the list of Five Non-Series Christies to Try, but I don’t recall seeing a more definitive list.

      As for my next Christie, it’s going to be a little more out of left field, I think…

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      1. Yeah, I play my Christie cards pretty close to my chest. Brad would never forgive me if he found out how highly I rate Destination Unknown…

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  3. It’s great that you’re enjoying Christie so much, regardless of the surprise factor being missing. It’s difficult to think of one for you that has a sure-fire shocker of an ending, both because of my own poor memory and because, as you say, there have been so many writers inspired by Christie that chances are you’ve seen it before. But she is an excellent storyteller and there are few of her books not worth reading, just for sheer enjoyment.

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    1. By what TheGreenCapsule opined in his two posts from Death On The Nile and this current one, Crooked House, though he has read a plethora of GAD books and can see from a mile away the solution, he thoroughly enjoyed the books. Though Christie is renown for her plots and solutions she offers other nuggets in her books that’s worth coming to again and again. If she was merely a technical mystery writer, merely focusing on puzzles I don’t think she would be one that a reader would come to again and again. Compared to Ellery Queen’s earlier books such as The Roman Hat Mystery (I think that’s the first one that I read), I’m not too eager to return to the latter. It’s far too technical and not any human element to my memory (it’s been a long, long time since I read it). Maybe I’m saying that because I was very young when I read ‘Roman Hat’.

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  4. I really liked this novel, and it remains one of my favourite Christie titles. But I can see the comparison with low-budget horror movies, and what held me back from seeing through Christie’s sleight-of-hand would be genre expectations – what might be fairly common in one genre might remain unexpected in another one? My suspicion is that most of us view Christie through rose-tinted glasses, as her novels would be, for most of us, our first taste of Golden-Age puzzle-mysteries. But since you’ve read much Carr and Queen before starting on Christie, I suspect some of her solutions wouldn’t be surprising to you.

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  5. JJ, “Destination Unknown” isn’t that bad . . . .the start of the book that is. The beginning is stunning, piques my interest, and keeps me hooked to the page, but it’s when the main character got onto the mission that’s when things started to slip a bit and that’s when I lose interest a bit and put the book away. Maybe one of these days I will finish the whole book. Christie had a great concept idea but it slipped through the cracks. I might have to wait a couple of years to read it fully to see if my opinion changes.

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  6. (SPOILER WARNING if you haven’t read Crooked House) That Pocket Books cover is pretty spoiler-ific. How did these things get approved? (Probable answer: the approver was someone who hadn’t read the book.)

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